Wednesday, October 8, 2014


Today I’m experiencing mixed emotions.  On the one hand, I’m ecstatic that the NHL season is beginning tonight (even though my Coyotes don’t open their season until tomorrow night).  On the other hand, however, I’m saddened by the loss of the Central Hockey League.  I worked in the CHL for four seasons, beginning with the WPHL/CHL merger of 2001.  I had worked the four previous seasons with the Western Professional Hockey League’s Lake Charles Ice Pirates.  When Lake Charles didn’t make the cut for the merger, I went to work for the Lubbock Cotton Kings for a season, then spent the next three seasons with the New Mexico Scorpions.  Having been through one of these mergers before, I know what people are going through.  For the teams that make the cut (in this case, all of the remaining CHL teams), there is joy at the 11th hour salvation of your hockey team.  For several WPHL teams, there was no joy.  Thousands of fans lost their hometown teams that they loved so dearly.  I’ve seen that happen all too many times, and it never gets any less painful for those involved.  Luckily, this ECHL/CHL deal spared several teams and their fans that pain.  I only wish this deal would have come along in time to save the Arizona Sundogs and Denver Cutthroats, two CHL teams that suspended operations over the summer.  Rumor had it that both teams closed up shop in the hopes that they could hook up with the ECHL after sitting out a season (to avoid a legal conflict owing to a non-compete clause with the CHL).  If that truly was the case, I hope that they can get things sorted out so that those teams may join the ECHL later.  Otherwise, that’s two more fan bases without a team to root for.  This strategy doesn’t always work.  I know there are still people in Bossier and Shreveport hoping to see their beloved Mudbugs take the ice again one day.  As a former rival of theirs, I hope to see that too.
The Central Hockey League has a long and storied history.  In actuality, there were two professional leagues that went by that name.  The Central Professional Hockey League began play in 1964 as a feeder league for the NHL.  They shortened their moniker to Central Hockey League in 1968.  I guess they figured the Professional part was implied.  Either that, or truth-in-advertising laws became an issue.  In any case, the “old” CHL was the premier minor hockey league for the better part of a couple of decades, with teams stretched at various times from Tucson, Arizona to Birmingham, Alabama and from Cincinnati, Ohio to Seattle, Washington.  They finally ceased operations in 1984.  A new league sprouted up in 1992 with teams in six of the old Central League cities.  Some of the teams reused the names of the previous teams to attract the old fans, and since hockey fans love history and tradition it only made sense to revive the CHL name.  The “new” CHL had operated continuously ever since, until yesterday.
The Western Professional Hockey League began play in 1996 with five teams in Texas and one in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  They doubled in size the following year with their first expansion, adding three teams in Louisiana and three more in Texas.  After competing with the Central League for expansion cities, the WPHL merged with the CHL in 2001, keeping the CHL name and logo for its history and brand recognition.  Eventually, all of the old WPHL teams folded (the Fort Worth Brahmas were the last to close up shop after the 2012-13 season).
I was excited about the merger in 2001 because it meant a lot of new cities and arenas.  It did not disappoint.  Some of the cities were a real pleasure to travel to, with great old buildings and enthusiastic fans at every turn.  I really miss the CHL (and the WPHL).  I have many great memories of my time in the league, and I made some lasting friendships that I will always cherish.  I was sad to see the league struggling over the last few years, along with the constant rumors of the league’s impending demise.  I’m glad that at least the remaining teams will continue on in the ECHL, which is a great league.  I’m saddened by the loss of the CHL, but the ECHL is now stronger than ever.  I take comfort in that.

But then…that’s just me.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Hockey and Life

Every now and then, events occur that remind us all that Hockey is, ultimately, just a game.  Recently, we have been deluged with such events.
First, there was the news of Calgary Flames centerman Matt Stajan and his wife losing their newborn son shortly after his birth.  Stajan had missed several games without explanation, and Sunday the world found out why.  No details were given out of respect for the Stajans’ privacy.  What is known is that Matt was placed on indefinite personal leave from the team until such time as he felt ready to return to hockey.  He has since returned to the lineup and scored a penalty-shot goal for his late son.  My thoughts and prayers are with them.
The next weekend, hockey’s social media lit up with messages about a missing player from the Ontario Hockey League’s Saginaw Spirit.  Terry Trafford had disappeared, apparently without a trace.  There were no clues given.  It seemed very odd.  With each passing day, the pleas for help in finding him grew more desperate.  Fears that he may have been the victim of foul play ran rampant, but there was something more to the story.  Yesterday, Michigan State Police received a report that a vehicle matching the description of Trafford’s was found in a parking lot, with a dead male body inside.  The ambiguity of the identity of the body was standard procedure for police, prior to notification of the next of kin.  But it left the door open to hope that Terry was still alive and missing, and that this body belonged to some other poor soul.  It sounds like a terrible thing, to hope that somebody else’s friend/relative is dead instead of yours, but it’s a natural impulse.  We so desperately want to cling to the hope that our loved one is still alive.  Unfortunately, everyone’s fears were confirmed and the body did belong to Terry.
Like a lot of people, I didn’t know Terry Trafford.  In fact, before this past weekend I’d never heard of him.  I and many others knew nothing about him, but over the last few days we’ve learned a few things.  First, he was obviously a well-liked and highly regarded young man.  Second, he had been suspended from the team for “violating team rules”.  I’ve read reports of the team rules he violated, but I don’t want to speculate on rumours and hearsay.  What is known is that he was suspended.  He disappeared last Monday without a word.  According to his girlfriend, he had dealt with depression in the past and talked of suicide after being suspended.  He said that, without hockey, his life was over and he saw no reason to go on.  I won’t point a finger of blame, but rather express the wish that he would have gotten help.  He had been dealing with his depression on his own, and apparently could no longer carry the burden.  I pray for him and his loved ones.
Finally, you probably saw the video of Rich Peverley collapsing behind the Dallas Stars’ bench during a game.  It was a very scary scene, to be sure…especially given Peverley’s medical history.  He was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat before the season and underwent a surgical procedure to correct it back in September.  Since then he has had “episodes” but his condition has been manageable with constant monitoring.  His “episodes” have been minor bouts of shortness of breath and fatigue, and have occasionally caused him to miss games.  This is the first time he had what is being termed a “cardiac event” without any sign of trouble beforehand.  In any case, it’s very disconcerting to see a professional athlete (whom one would assume is in top physical condition) in such distress.  You can tell by the reaction of the play-by-play man and color commentator how urgent the situation was.  I’m happy to report that Peverley survived and underwent surgery to correct an ongoing heart condition.  He’s not out of the woods, by any means, but all appears to be going well.  I wish him the best of luck with his surgery and hope for a full and speedy recovery.
What I noticed immediately while watching this video was the quick response of the medical staff, starting with the Stars’ Athletic Trainers Dave Zeis and Craig Lowry.  You hear the broadcaster say “It’s panic and pandemonium down there”, but he’s referring to the scene in general, not the response of the Trainers.  They move into action immediately and move Peverley out of the bench area to a space where they have room to work (and room for the other responders to work).  You can see how quickly the Blue Jackets Trainers step in to help and how quickly the EMTs get on the scene.  All of these factors probably contributed to saving Peverley's life.  That is not an understatement.  Those people saved Peverley’s life.  And the margin was likely very slim.  One misstep, one hesitation, one delay…could have made the difference between a remarkable story and a horrible tragedy.  Rich Peverley is alive because all of those individuals knew what had to be done and they did it.
In my 20+ years of working in professional hockey, I’ve seen some scary things…some life-threatening things.  In each case, I’ve marveled at the response of the medical professionals who cover professional hockey games.  From the Trainers to the EMTs to the Team Doctors, these people know what they’re doing and they snap into action when the moment comes.  They are trained in dealing with traumatic situations, and because of that they spring into action when others stand in shock.  I’ve witnessed this on numerous occasions (more than I’d care to count).  One in particular stands out in my memory.
It was February of 2007.  I was working with the ECHL’s Phoenix Roadrunners, and we were in Anchorage for a game against the Alaska Aces.  There were a few minutes remaining in a 5-2 game for the Aces.  Roadrunners rookie defenseman Dave Pszenyczny was backpedaling into his defensive zone, forcing an Aces forward to the outside.  As the guy tried to go wide around him, Chezy closed the gap and took him into the boards.  They got tangled up and went to the ice.  The next thing I knew, Chezy was skating back towards our bench, doubled over and holding his arm/wrist to his abdomen.  My initial thought, based on the way he was holding his arm, was that he must have jammed his wrist when he fell to the ice.  Then I saw the front of his jersey turn red with blood.  I turned to yell for our Trainer, Brad Chavis, who was already on the ice making a beeline for Pszenyczny.  Chavy motioned for Chezy to turn and head for the corner and off the ice.  Chavy got to him and guided him off the ice and under the stands toward the locker rooms.  A hush fell over the crowd and most of us stood there transfixed.  The only ones moving around were medical personnel; Trainers, EMTs, and Team Doctors.  After what seemed like an eternity, much of which was spent watching rink workers scrape the blood off the ice, the officials called the teams to line back up and prepare for the faceoff.  I couldn’t tell you what happened in those remaining few minutes of game time.  It was inconsequential.  The only thing I remember about it is hearing the PA announcer call for medical personnel up to the stands.  We later found out that the scene had been so traumatic that a man in the stands had actually had a heart attack.  What we were able to piece together after the fact was that Chezzy had ended up on the ice with his arm outstretched and in trying to continue on towards the corner the Aces player had stepped on the inside of his lower arm (accidentally, of course).  In trying to push off to continue his stride, he had slashed his skate blade across Chezzy’s arm and sliced all the way through to the bones.  In the process, he severed all of Chezzy’s tendons (which control the movement of the wrist, hand, and fingers) and the artery that provides blood for the extremity.  This explains the massive loss of blood.
We finished the game and left the ice to head back to our dressing room.  After leaving the ice, we walked through the doors leading to the hallway underneath the stands and to our locker room.  Chezy was still there.  He was still being treated, but the initial urgency had given way to a more practiced level of activity.  In short, the situation was stable.  They loaded him up and took him to the hospital, but his ordeal was just beginning.  He would spend 5 hours in surgery just to repair the artery, then would have to endure further surgery to reattach the tendons and then close everything up.  After that, he had a long and arduous rehabilitation process to regain feeling and control in his wrist, hand, and fingers.  When I last spoke to him, he said he still doesn’t have full feeling in his little fingers.  But I’m happy to report that he returned to the Roadrunners before the end of that season and is still playing hockey today (currently in the CHL with the Missouri Mavericks).
I also had a very similar situation (eerily similar) occur last season with the Evansville Icemen in an ECHL game against the Everblades in Florida, with an equally adept response by Icemen Trainer Brian Patafie.  I’m happy to report that that player, Josh Beaulieu, returned to the Icemen this season and was named Captain.  Both he and Pszenyczny are tough individuals (and great guys, to boot).  They also owe a huge debt of gratitude to the quick response of their Trainers and the EMTs who were on the scene, medical professionals who know how to respond to a crisis.

A little post script to the Alaska story:

We played one more game in Alaska the next night.  I was still somewhat in shock as we prepared for the game.  I think we all just wanted to get the game over with and get home.  As I straightened up my end of the bench before the start of the game, I heard a tap on the glass.  You tend to ignore this when you're on the road because it's usually some drunk, loud-mouthed home fan who just wants to tell you that you suck.  But, for some reason, I looked up.  There was a little boy standing there, maybe 5 or 6 years old, proudly wearing his Aces jersey.  He had a very concerned look on his face and he held up a small sign that read, "I hope your teammate is O.K."  I nodded and thanked him.  Underneath everything, humanity remains.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Olympic Hockey - Prelims

If you follow women’s international hockey, you know that there are Team USA, Team Canada, and then everybody else.  There are quite a few teams representing numerous different countries, but the Americans and Canadians stand 1-2 over the rest.  The gap is closing, but it’s still ponderous.  So it was no surprise to see Team USA and Team Canada each handle their business fairly easily through their first 2 games.   Canada peppered the appropriately named Swiss goalie Florence Schelling with 69 shots en route to a 5-0 rout, then beat Finland by a score of 3-0.  The American ladies cruised to a 3-1 victory over Finland, then unloaded their own barrage against Schelling for a 9-0 romp against Switzerland.  This set up a preliminary round showdown of the top 2 teams in women’s hockey.

The matchup between the US and Canada in each team’s 3rd game was by far the most anticipated contest of this Olympic women’s tournament.  It did not disappoint.  It’s no secret that there is no love lost between these two teams.  They make no secret of the fact that they don’t like each other.  They say familiarity breeds contempt, and these teams are very familiar with each other.  They met 7 times in pre-Olympic competition, with Team USA winning the last 4 matches after dropping the first 3.  Two of the games led to fisticuffs on the ice, a rarity in the women’s game.

I was looking forward to this game as much as anybody.  I had the chance to watch 2 of the tune-up games (including one of the brawls) and was looking forward to the intense, physical battle that this promised to be.  As I said before, this game did not disappoint (with the exception of the outcome, if you’re a Team USA fan).  Canada dictated the flow of the game for most of the first 57 minutes or so.  They came out throwing the body around and set the tempo early.  Except for a couple of inconsistencies, the refs let the girls play for the most part.  Canada seemed to thrive on the physicality, though the Americans didn't shy away from it.

The game was largely dominated by great goaltending.  Canada had numerous opportunities to score in the first period and US goalie Jessie Vetter was equal to the task.  The Americans also had their share of chances in the first period (outshooting Canada 11-8) but couldn't capitalize, hitting one crossbar and having several point-blank chances thwarted by defensive plays.  The second period was more of the same, with the Americans holding a slight advantage in shots.  Hilary Knight deflected a shot by Anne Schleper past Labonte on the Power Play, giving Team USA a 1-0 lead late in the second period.  Team Canada wasted little time tying things up, netting the equalizer on a Power Play early in the 3rd period.  Captain Canada Hayley Wickenheiser made a great pass to a wide-open Meghan Agosta-Marciano, who buried her shot to even the score.  Agosta-Marciano returned the favor, assisting on Wickenheiser’s controversial go-ahead goal.  I say controversial because replays showed that the puck crossed the line after the whistle had blown.  Somehow, the goal was allowed to stand after a review (though nobody seems to know whether the review confirmed or overturned the call on the ice, because the referee never signaled either way).  In any case, the goal did count.  Agosta-Marciano added another goal with just over five minutes remaining to make it a 3-1 game.  The Americans pulled Jessie Vetter for the extra attacker, which led to Anne Schleper’s goal with 1:05 remaining.  They pulled Vetter again but were unable to score the tying goal and dropped a 3-2 decision.

It’s a shame that a lot of people will be talking about the officiating in this game.  As I said, aside from a couple of inconsistencies (and missing at least two obvious too-many-men penalties), I thought it was a pretty well-officiated game.  Many people will focus on the goal that shouldn’t have counted, but make no mistake.  It was a bad call, and probably shouldn’t have been allowed to stand, but the Canadians definitely deserved to win the game.  They dominated most of the play throughout the game, and especially in the 3rd period (where they held the US without a shot on goal for the first 16 minutes or so).  They deserved to win the game.

Canada’s 3 stars of the game for me are definitely Labonte, Wickenheiser, and Agosta-Marciano.  Labonte held her team in the game early and made numerous big saves throughout.  Wickenheiser made the play that led to Canada’s first goal, then added one of her own, and she was the clear leader of the team from the drop of the puck.  Agosta-Marciano buried 2 goals.  Enough said.  The 3 stars for Team USA were Vetter, Knight, and Schleper.  Vetter fought off numerous early chances and held the Americans in the game for 2 periods before the dam finally burst.  Knight played an intense, physical game and created most of the chances that the Americans had in the game.  Schleper came up with a big offensive performance from the back end.

As expected, this game was far and away the best contest of the women’s tournament so far.  If these teams meet for the Gold Medal (as expected), that game should be even better than this one.  Don’t miss it!

On the men’s side, there were a few surprises.  Canada looked a little sluggish in their opening game against Norway.  They still got the win, but Norway is a second-tier team and Canada should have beaten them easily.  Of course, it was the first time most of these guy had played together, so they can be forgiven if it took them a few minutes to click.  On the other side of that coin, Team USA handily beat Slovakia in their opener, posting a 7-1 victory.  I was expecting a little bit more from the Slovaks.

The most anticipated matchup of the men’s prelims was undoubtedly Team USA vs Russia.  Billed as the rematch of the Miracle on Ice from the 1980 Olympics, it was probably the most hyped preliminary round game in Olympics history.  It all seems a bit silly to me.  There was none of the same drama from 1980…no cold war, no Afghanistan invasion, no scrappy college kids playing against seasoned pros…it’s just another game.  But for Russian hockey fans, it was a chance to see their beloved national team face the hated Americans on Russian ice.  From the opening faceoff, you could see it wasn't just another game.  The crowd was loud and rowdy.  It was a great atmosphere.  And the game didn't disappoint.  It was everything that most fans like in a hockey game.  Strong physical play, fast skating, pinpoint passing, tight defense, and solid goaltending.  After a scoreless first period, Pavel Datsyuk got the Russians on the board in the second period with a breakaway goal on Jonathan Quick.  With Alexander Radulov serving a cross-checking minor, Cam Fowler answered for the Americans with a Power Play goal past Sergei Bobrovsky.  Joe Pavelski put Team USA ahead with a Power Play goal of his own after another Radulov penalty.  Then Datsyuk tied the game with a Power Play goal of his own.

Here’s where it gets tricky.  With time winding down in regulation, Fyodor Tyutin fired the apparent go-ahead goal over Jonathan Quick’s shoulder, sending the Sochi crowd into a frenzy.  When the roar died down, the fans slowly came to realize that something was amiss.  The officials were consulting.  That’s usually not a good sign.  Then came the announcement…goal disallowed.  The faceoff went outside the American defensive zone without an actual explanation.  Most thought initially that they were reviewing whether or not a Russian player had deflected the puck with a high stick.  The replay seemed to show that nobody had deflected it, but a different replay showed that the net had come ever so slightly off its moorings during a net-mouth scramble just before the Tyutin shot.  Since, by rule, a goal cannot be scored while the net is dislodged (except under very few, very particular circumstances), the goal could not stand.  The final horn sounded without another goal, and the game was headed to overtime.  After a fairly uneventful 5-minute OT period failed to settle the score, it was up to a shootout to determine the winner.  After 3 shooters per side it was still deadlocked, so they went to sudden-death rounds.  In a quirk of international shootout rules, once the initial 3 shooters have gone a team can reuse any player as many times as they want.  At this point, T.J. Oshie became the designated shooter for the US, while the Russians alternated Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk.  Oshie went 4 for 6 in his attempts, finally winning the game for America after a Kovalchuk miss.  Final score, 3-2 Team USA in a shootout.

So, of course, people lined up around the block to cry foul about the disallowed goal.  Well, suck it up, buttercup.  They made the call according to the rule and they’re not gonna change it now.  If you think you’re the only team to lose a game on a disputed call, you’re sadly mistaken.  Just ask anybody in Buffalo.  Besides, it was only a prelim game.

In any case, now the prelims are over and it’s time to get down to business.  As I write this, we’re about 6 hours away from the women’s semifinal game between Team USA and Sweden.  I haven’t really seen anything of the Swedes, so I’m not sure what to expect from them.  What I do know is, to quote Hilary Knight, “I’d hate to be the other team right now”.  The US ladies want to come out and show that they’re ready to play for that Gold Medal, and I wouldn't want to be standing in their way.  Best of luck to all in the medal rounds.  Go USA!